Life as an Artist or Why I Currently Have Three Jobs

A couple of days ago, I had a phone appointment with the director a community outreach program at a college where I will be teaching some writing courses. When the call came in, I took off my tool belt, wiped the sawdust from my sweatshirt, slipped into an unoccupied room, and quickly changed gears. I did have to explain the banging she heard in the background, but she didn’t seem perturbed. They don’t pay their teachers enough money to make a living—we’re all contracted, and we all do other things. She understands. After all, she’s an artist, too.

This is the reality of my life right now. I’ve been working on two houses lately, so most days, I wear my work clothes—apparel that is stained with blotches of joint compound and paint, and, fortunately, none of the staff at our church (where I am the worship pastor) minds that I show up to most of our planning meetings wearing those same work clothes and smelling like sawdust. (Sometimes, I manage to change into my “good sweatshirt.”).

If you’re keeping score at home, yes, those are three jobs: writing teacher (ding, that’s one), carpenter (ding, that’s two!), (self-employed real estate development at the moment, though I’ll make you a piece of furniture, if you’re in the market), and worship pastor (ding, that’s three!!) And the main reason I am currently working three different jobs is because I’m a writer, and I’m trying to make space in my life to read and to write (so I guess that four—ding again). In the short run, my writing goal is to finishing the two books I’m currently working on (a novel of which I have a pretty solid draft, which means it needs another year of revision work—at least) and a collection of short stories (that usually means ten stories, so I’m currently about three quarters of the way there). So yeah, I’m balancing a lot of stuff.

            This is not what I want my work life to look like. The pay is not great, and I often feel torn in multiple directions, and I struggle feeling like I’m giving enough time and energy to any one of the things to which I’m committed (should I be writing, practicing hymns, or nailing up trim boards?). But this is what I’ve chosen (for now); it’s not something I fell into. And I’m sure that most of you writers and artists are nodding your head right now, because you, too, share this constant struggle with how to fit your life as an artist in with your work life and your relationships with family and friends. And because it’s so difficult, I think it’s really important that we are all talking about why we are doing what we’re doing and sharing what we’re learning, as we’re all trying to make this thing work.

            Okay, the reason that I’m currently doing three jobs boils down to this: I’m trying to protect my time and my energy to be able to do be a person who is thinking, reading, and writing. This activity requires space, and that space is hard to come by, especially if you are committed to full-time employment. Most career jobs, salaried jobs, require that you give 110%. Employers want the best parts of you. They want your energy, your thought-life, and the best parts of your workday. Most high commitment jobs aren’t forty or fifty hour commitments, because they require that you spend much of your time when not at work wrestling with the tasks that are coming down the pike. I was previously a full-time pastor, and it was work that I loved. It was meaningful work with a lot of freedom. I loved the people I worked with, and unlike many of the pastors I know, my church community was incredibly gracious toward me and my time. Instead of making demands, they often encouraged me to step away and recharge. But the reality was that it was very challenging work, and because I cared deeply about what I was doing, I was often consumed by it. Most nights, I was spent. Again, I’m sure many of you know exactly what I’m saying. For the majority of us, full-time work means you’re always on.

            Of course, divvying that up into three different jobs has its own challenges. Sometimes, I’m really busy, and I’m just coming off of a very long stretch (two months) when I wasn’t able to write at all. But now, just the past week or so, the door is starting to open up. I have space, and I’m writing and reading again, and I’m not just doing that writing and reading at six in the morning or at night after the kids are in bed. I’m currently 10am, which is the time of day when I am most energetic and locked in. And I’m writing.

            The other reason that I am currently living as a “writing musicio-worker” is because I care about multiple things and I have two callings when it comes to career. Part of me is an artist/writer, committed to telling the truth about our world through story, and another part of me is committed to teach and lead in the church. And to let either one of these things go completely would be a betrayal of who I am (and who I believe God has created me to be). And so, in a very real sense, I believe that I’m stuck with a certain amount of confusion and division in my work life. Maybe there will be seasons when I’m not doing one or the other as a paid occupation, but I won’t be okay with myself if I’m not in some way making art and serving the church.

            And this is important for artists to talk about, because we’re not all Hemmingway. We’re not all independently wealthy and able to commit ourselves one hundred percent to our craft (and alcohol—and carousing). We have other things that we love and care about and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not an artist if you’re not teaching at a University or doing the emotionally shipwrecked thing, trying to write the great American novel and drinking yourself under the table every night. You can just be a person who loves your family and friends, has a hobby, is emotionally well, and still make great art. Lots of people have done it, but their stories don’t sell, so we rarely hear them.

            Okay, one last thing about career and art. The part of this that is the hardest for me is that it requires a great deal of patience and perseverance. It doesn’t come quickly or easily for anyone. The process of growing into an artist who is making really good work takes decades. Decades. I know many writers who didn’t have anything published until they were well into their fifties, and I now others who had success at a much younger age and now wish they could go back and burn the stuff they wrote when they were in their 20’s (if only there was plausible deniability in the digital age). Because this whole thing requires that we gain a great deal of maturity, and there simply is no workaround for maturity. Lots and lots of people never get there, because they simply aren’t willing to put in work.

            I’m a very impatient person. I do want to skip over some of these steps. I do want to forego the process. I want to imagine that my novel is going to be done by Christmas (it’s not). But even though I want to, I’m not going to take the shortcut. I’m going to keep working three jobs and trying to wrestle away the time and space to do the work. And when I talk to my friends who are in this boat with me, I’m going to be the one to say: yes, we will reach the other shore—we will get there, I just know it. I’m going to remind them that I believe in them, that they have the talent and the grit to do it. And they’ll remind me, too.